With the road to the Super Bowl being re-routed to run through Green Bay courtesy of the NY Giants 21-17 win over the # 1 seeded Dallas Cowboys, the sentiment for Packer Nation has also changed course. No longer is the call for revenge of a stinging regular season loss to those same Cowboys. It is instead replaced with the familiar mantra â€˜there’s no place like home’.
Having beaten the Giants thoroughly once this year in the swamps of New Jersey (how can they call themselves a NY team anyways?), confidence is high among the Green and Gold faithful that their beloved Packers are destined to play in the sunshine of Arizona. However, there are several things to consider which preclude this from being a foregone conclusion.
The Giants team which took the field in week two of the regular season only slightly resembles the team that will be arriving in Green Bay this week. The same can be said of the host Packers.
THEN – The running game that was going to be depended upon to give a still maturing QB in Eli Manning the ability to use the play-action pass to his advantage was dealt an early blow with the injury to the 6′ 4″, 260 lb. Brandon Jacobs. Although Derrick Ward stepped in admirably in his absence, Jacobs was clearly missed. This was demonstrated by the ineffectiveness of Manning due to the ability of opposing defenses to disrespect the running game and apply pressure through multiple blitz packages.
NOW – Jacobs has returned to play a prominent role in the resurgence of the power running game many expected from the start. In addition, Ahmad Bradshaw, a 5′ 9″ rookie out of Marshall, has come in, in relief of the injured Ward, and given the Giants another dimension to their running game with his quick cutting style of running which ironically resembles that of current GB surprise and former Giant nobody, Ryan Grant.
THEN – QB Eli Manning, forced to make quicker decisions due to increased pressure consistently reverted to the QB that former teammate Tiki Barber claimed was incapable of leading the offense. His indecision and lack of experience resulted in numerous mistakes you are hard pressed to overcome if your team wants to continue playing in January.
NOW – Manning appears to have turned the corner in terms of not only his decision making and confidence but in the confidence he garners from his teammates as well, which by most accounts will only improve your results. Leading the Giants to an impressive nine consecutive road victories, including two in the playoffs, he must be considered a more dangerous weapon than in the previous meeting.
The receivers have been somewhat of a mystery all season. While the lanky Plaxico Burress has put up enviable numbers, his health has been questionable all year, practicing little during the week. On the other side, Amani Toomer has been a consistent possession receiver, but in the playoffs has stepped up his game, as has rookie Steve Smith who was slowed early in the season by a concussion among other things(no they didn’t pick him up from Carolina). Sinorice Moss, a speedy receiver looks to be returning to practice this week and rookie Kevin Boss has done a solid job filling in for Pro-Bowler Jeremy Shockey who is on IR with a broken leg suffered in Week 15 against the Redskins.
THEN – With the hold-out of perennial Pro-Bowler Michael Strahan the defense struggled to find their identity early on. Adjusting to the defensive scheme of the newly acquired D-Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was something that should have taken place prior to the season opener but Strahan’s absence left the front line struggling.
NOW – The defensive line, led by Osi Umenyiora’s emergence, along with the play of a revitalized Strahan and inspired play by the interior lineman (who seem to platoon much like the Packers D-line) eventually found their stride to lead the league with 52 sacks.
The secondary is somewhat of a concern for the Giants and has the Packers receivers licking their chops. Depleted by injuries to both starting corners, as well as nickel back Kevin Dockery, they are looking to the practice squad for help (although the injured Aaron Ross claims he’ll be playing on Sunday). While their play has been inconsistent, you don’t get to the NFC Championship without a solid defense and this one certainly fits that billing.
Having said all of that, the Packers are also a faint resemblance of the team that pummeled the Giants 35-13 in week two.
With an aerial attack that would make Maverick and Goose proud, the Packers Offense relied heavily on the arm of #4 through the first six weeks of the season. Then an early game injury to their THIRD starting running back forced McCarthy to call on Ryan Grant to revitalize a dormant running game in a classic Monday Night win against Denver.
He responded with his first 100 yard effort and hasn’t looked back. With the emergence of Grant and the improvement of their ability to execute a complicated zone blocking scheme, the now solidified offensive line has given the Packers the balance they’ve needed to keep opposing defenses on their toes. Given the threat of the run, combined with the short timing patterns which have allowed the receiving corps to lead the league in the now popular YAC stat, protecting Favre has become easier, even with what at times was a revolving door on the line due to injury and poor performances.
The addition of the suspended Koren Robinson gave more depth to a corps of receivers that some feel is inexperienced, but whose stats support otherwise. With the ever dependable Donald Driver, 2nd year man Greg Jennings, the Rook James Jones, and 6′ 4″ Ruvell Martin, the self-named FabFive are giving DB’s nightmares. The Packers must now be considered the most lethal offense in the NFC , running a close second to the undefeated Patriots, if you include that other conference.
As for the defense, they have probably been the one constant throughout the season. The secondary, though prone to giving up the big play on occasion, has done a tremendous job. The one consequence to playing the physical, suffocating man/zone defense they play is the fact that the Pack led the league in interference penalties, including holding, illegal contact, etc…This is a small price to pay for the shut down defense they’ve displayed throughout the season. Emerging in this group has been Atari Bigby, whose inexperience early on was a liability, but has clearly learned from the coaching of not only the staff but his more experienced teammates as well, and led the team in picks with 5.
The linebackers have been quick to fill the gaps, move well laterally, with adequate speed in the blitz, and have proven dependable in short pass coverage, recording 186 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 4 ints among the starting three. The men in the trenches have also been a bright spot for most of the year, allowing only three 100 yd rushers all season, and recording 31.5 sacks. Though diminished by injury, they are still able to platoon a strong group, keeping the big boys as fresh as is possible. The special teams have had their moments as well, the bright spot being a dominating performance in week 15 against the Rams. And you can’t exclude our rookie kicker, Mason Crosby, who beat out our old buddy Randy Moss by 3 points to lead the league in scoring. That in itself is worth spending a draft pick on a kicker!
So here we go. It’s been 10 years since we were in this position and I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. The days leading up to Sunday are growing longer, and as luck would have it the Packers play the late game to boot! I am going to remain cautiously optimistic, knowing we have the superior team but painfully aware of the fact that in this league the saying “any given Sunday” has never been more true (0-2 against da bears this year…..ouch).